Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What is the Tour de France?

In France, the Tour de France is like an institution. From childhood I never wondered about the Tour de France. It was an event every July and all the people I knew watched it on television and talked about it – it was a natural. I never thought twice about it and never really pondered What is the Tour de France? How did it start, what are the rules, etc.?

Picture of leader Bobet attacking Mont Ventoux (1955)

When I came to the USA I noticed that the Tour was not mentioned in sport conversation, nor could I find it on television. Then when Lance Armstrong started to win the Tour in 1999, it finally was covered but only followed here by a very few fans. I now watch the 3-weeks tour broadcast by TV Channel Versus.

Lance Armstrong in 2009 Tour de France

The Tour de France is the most prestigious cycling event in the world. Actually I have heard that it is the biggest annual sporting event in the world, not just cycling. Just think – anyone can come to France and watch it live, from many towns during the 3 weeks that it runs, and it is absolutely free. Where else can you go to see such a free event which includes competitors from many countries? If you go to a baseball game or football game, you have to pay admission to an arena or stadium, the teams are from the USA usually and it does not last 3 weeks.

The Tour de France 2009 starting in Monaco

The Tour de France started in 1903 as an trade mark feud between two rival sport newspapers in France “ L’Auto-Vélo” and “Le Vélo” (vélo means bike in French). The Auto-Vélo lost and had to change its name to "L’Auto” but conceived to organize this bicycling tour as a publicity stunt. It was successful and the Tour was launched.

Today about 15 million people line the roads of the Tour in France (and some neighboring countries) to watch the event still free of charge. About 1 billion more tune in to follow it on television, the Internet or the radio worldwide – it is an enormous sport event. About 80 television channels transmit the Tour to about 170 different countries. The race includes many publicity vans and television crews on motorcycles. A helicopter follows the bikers from the air and shows many panoramic views of the countryside like those below.

The Tour starts on the first Saturday of July and concludes three weeks later on a Sunday with a final sprint on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. This grueling event usually lasts 23 days including 2 days of rest. The Tour consists of multi-stages, 22-international teams with 200 riders from a dozen countries. The race covers from 3,000 to 4,000 kms (1,900 to 2,500 miles) which is roughly the distance between London and Tel Aviv or Cairo. The shortest Tour was in 1904 with 2,420 kms (1,500 miles) and the longest in 1926 with 5,746 kms (3,570 miles). The riders average a strenuous 40 km per hour (25 mph) over the course, sometimes faster than that and on some mountain descents their speed can reach up to 110 Km/h (68 mph.)

The riders eat a special diet since they need an enormous amount of energy and can burn up to 10,000 calories per day while climbing a steep mountain. Their bikes are specially designed by engineers and mechanics for aerodynamic efficiency. They are extremely light weight, built and tested in wind tunnels. Special bikes are made for speed racing, see below.

For 2009 the 20 teams were selected from France, Belgium, Spain, the USA (3 teams), Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Denmark, and Kazakhstan. The teams include riders from various countries, for example team Astana (Lance Armstrong’s team) includes members from the USA, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Lithuania, Ukraine and Slovenia. Other teams include bikers from France, the USA, Switzerland, Russia, Belgium, Ireland, Colombia, Australia, Austria, Norway, Germany, New Zealand, Estonia, Belarus, Great Britain, Luxemburg, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Holland, Italy, Brazil, Czech Republic, Croatia, Poland, Denmark, Slovakia and Japan. Where can you, in this country, go and cheer a sport made up of an international team with such diversity? And then celebrate the winners, even if they are not from this country or one's own state? And don’t forget, free of charge.

Each year the official organizers of the Tour decide where the course will go and which towns or countries will be included. Some stages (a one long-day segment is called a stage) are scheduled in neighboring countries, like Spain, Germany, Belgium, Italy, etc. The route this year includes 10 flat stages, 7 mountain stages, 1 medium mountain stage, 2 individual time-trial stages and 1 team time-stage. Next Saturday, 25 July, the stage will finish on Mont Ventoux, a tough and steep ascent. (I was brought up near Mont Ventoux, in Provence, (from infancy to about 4 years of age) and would look up at it, from the lavender fields).

Steep ascent on Mont Ventoux

Snow capped Mont Ventoux from the valley below

The selection of the course is eagerly anticipated each year, as the towns on the circuits will gain tremendous prestige, which is of more value to most average villager than the additional gain from tourism and commerce. The route along the course is lined with many international fans waving their country’s flags but everyone cheers the bikers, whether they are from France or any other country in a true spirit of sportsmanship.

Map of the Tour 2009

The teams of 9 riders work as units, with each member his own responsibility. The “domestiques” (standard riders not geared to win major awards) spend their time helping the leaders – by fetching water, etc. The “peloton” (pack) is the main group of racers maneuvering for position. At the end of each stage the first rider at the finish line is victorious and goes on the podium where he receives a trophy and bouquet of flowers from lovely hostesses. The biker with the fastest time during the sprint speed race wears the green jersey. The best climbers received the polka dot jersey and the white jersey designates the best young rider.

The Peloton

The yellow jersey is worn by the race leader. The race leader aims to keep the yellow jersey during many stages and mostly all the way to Paris. In Paris the yellow jersey is worn by the biker with the overall best aggregate time since the beginning of the race and is declared the winner of the Tour de France.

Lance winning in Paris in 2005

Many spectators camp along the route for days to get the best view of the Tour. There are tremendous crowds waiting on mountain tops and safety can be a problem, both for the bikers and the fans. Last Saturday, 18-July-2009, a woman was killed while crossing the road in front of a motorcyclist accompanying the bikers.

The New York Times said “The Tour de France is arguably the most physiologically demanding of athletic events”. The total elevation of the race is compared to climbing Mount Everest 3 times and, the effort, to running a marathon several days a week for nearly three weeks. It is a supreme endurance race and the most celebrated. It is followed by millions of fans – and it is free. Every July, from the South of the United States I can follow the Tour on television and enjoy the spectacular views of the countryside, peek at historical towns and castles perched high on the surrounding hills.

Below is the winner of the 2008 Tour de France, Carlos Sastre of Spain. Watch on Sunday morning, 26 July to see who the winner is for 2009.

Pictures are mine, or taken from free Web images. Four postcards are courtesy Graham Watson.

Last Minute Update: The fantastic Tour de France 2009 has ended. This is the ranking:

Alberto Contador, Spain Winner of the Tour de France
Andy Schleck, Luxemburg 2nd place
Lance Armstrong, USA 3rd place
Thor Hushovd, Norway Green Jersey (fastest sprinter)
Franco Pellizotti, Italy Polka dot Jersey (king of the mountain)
Andy Schleck, Luxemburg White jersey (best young rider)

Both Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong were in the winning team, team Astana, from Kazakhstan (Astana is the name of the capital of Kazakhstan). This has been another outstanding Tour, and truly an international sporting event.  The 2010 Tour next year will start in Rotterdam, Holland and we look forward to keep watching it on TV.

P.S. Summer 2013 - In 2012 the USDA reported that Lance Armstrong engaged in a very sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program and banned him from all competition.  In January 2013 Armstrong admitted to doping.  He has been a great disappointment to his fans.


Reader Wil said...

Excellent post, Vagabonde! Great pictures too. The Tour the France is to be seen every day here on TV and also on the Belgian, and German TV. I don't watch this but many people do. I don't know anything about Tom Boonen. Could he been involved in the use of drugs ? I don't know if he still rides. Thanks for your comment. Where in Europe are you from?
If you read my profile you'll see where I was born, grew up and live.

Paty said...

very intersting info and beautiful photos, thank you! Very soon i´ll be in France for a vacation trip, I can´t wait!

claude said...

Très beau post Vagabonde. Il fut un temps où je m'intéressais au Tour de France, surtout quand c'était un Français qui avait le maillot jaune. Mais depuis des histoires de doppage, je ne m'y intéresse plus. Mais tu as raison, c'est resté une vraie institution.

DJan said...

VB, the only reason I will not be watching on Sunday is that I will be at the Drop Zone. Thank you for your wonderful comment on my post, and also thanks for this extremely well researched and interesting post about the Tour de France. I learned an enormous amount and will be very excited about seeing who does win this event!

Marguerite said...

VB- This is such an incredible event! And your post is so interesting and descriptive. I only wish that I could be a spectator, camping out in that beautiful place. The photos are amazing and really capture the essence of the Tour de France. Cheers! And long live the French!

Carolyn said...

Thank you for this wonderful and informative post and the pictures are terrific. I have watched parts of the race on TV when I had it but my sumers are my busiest time and I just don't watch anything. I would love to witness it sometime....hmmmmm reminder to self to put on my "bucket list". Thanks for sharing and have a wonderful weekend and enjoy the race.

Caffeinated Weka said...

I have never known the history (or significance) of the Tour de France. You have explained it so well and also made me wish I could see part of it while perched on a hillside in a little French town. Thank you for sharing this.

Darlene said...

This is a fascinating post, Vagabonde. I learned so much and appreciate the effort it took to research this interesting subject.

The photos are gorgeous.

Reader Wil said...

The Tour is still going on..Thanks for your comment. Have a great weekend!

Shammickite said...

A very interesting post! Thank you for all the pictures and the information. I'm amazed that the cyclists can finish the race, it must require a huge commitment and so much energy. We hear about it in Canada, but only when something significant happens.

Friko said...

Seriously well researched and presented, yet again. Great pictures too.
I once had a friend who became a rider in the Tour de France, but he never won anything. I think he was just happy and satisfied to be part of the German team.

Elaine said...

This post was very interesting. I had only followed the Tour before through brief news photos. We only got Versus last year, and your photos inspired me to turn it on and watch some. The countryside is beautiful, and watching it only for that would be worthwhile. We don't watch much TV in the summer as it's much too short here and there's so much to do. I will watch a bit of the Tour over the next few days though. Thanks for drawing my attention to it. I'll keep an eye out tomorrow for Mt. Ventoux.

Pietro Brosio said...

A really nice and informative post, Vagabonde. It's very interesting you have included the words of The New York Times "The Tour de France is arguably the most physiologically demanding of athletic events".
Happy weekend!

Ruth said...

I will try to remember to watch tomorrow!

I didn't know the route changed every year, that must be quite a feat to plan for.

I was picturing "The Triplets of Belleville" while I was reading your post.

My boss has the race on throughout the 3 weeks while he works, he himself is a biker. He has always said this sport is the most grueling, and it must be.

Terrific information, thank you for sharing it all. And the views are incredible - it has to be the most beautiful sport to participate in scenically.

Lori Lynn said...

Great post, very interesting. I've done some century rides myself, but it has been quite a while since I've ridden. Used to love touring.
Thanks for visiting my blog.

Louis la Vache said...

Excellent post on this epic event!

Celeste Maia said...

I am so happy you left a comment in my blog. Thanks to that I came and have spent the last hour reading your entries and thoroughly enjoying your blog. Ah la tour de France! That is indeed an epic event. Some years ago when we had a solar eclipse visible in Europe at this time of the year, I remember reading in the paper that there was a big crowd of people gathered in the middle of France and the writer thought they were waiting to view the eclipse, but no, no, the tour de France was passing at that spot. So he said, what is bigger news than the eclipse? Of course le tour de France!
I will be coming regularly to read your blog.

kodiakgriff said...

Luv your blog! I really learned a lot about the TDF.
I have added your link to blog list so that others may find you.

Vagabonde said...

The Tour has ended and I added the name of the winners on my post.

Paty, DJan, Marguerite, Carolyn, Shammickite, Darlene, Friko, Elaine, Pietro, Ruth, and Lori Lynn: thank you for your comments and I hope that this post will give you spark your interest to keep track of the Tour next year.

Claude et Louis La Vache, merci d’ être venus regarder le Tour quelques minutes avec moi.

Reader Wil, Café Chick, Celeste Maia and Kodiakgriff: I appreciate your reading my posts and hope that you will continue to come by. I try to post on a variety of subjects. Thanks so much for your visit.

DJan said...

VB, I applaud the wrapup on your blog, since I just now returned from the Drop Zone and did not know what had happened. But because of your wonderful blog, I am now completely conversant about the TDF!

And many many thanks for the lovely comments you have left on my latest posts. The reason I can make a post a day is because they are definitely what you would call "seat of the pants" blogs, nothing like your well-researched and informative ones!

And I'm getting tired of making one a day, soon it will stop. But making a friend of people like you has been worth any effort! I am smiling at you, can you feel it??

Kate said...

Wonderful post with terrific pictures and information. I'm one American who has been watching for years, ever since Greg LeMond. Armstrong has been, and continues to be, amazing. There is a shop here in St. Paul that has been building wheels for Armstrong ever since he was a teen-ager. If you wish I'll hunt for a copy of the latest newspaper article on it. If you're interested, just email me. My address in on my profile.

sablonneuse said...

Your post has clarified the rules a bit for me. My husband watches avidly every year now that we live in France but doesn't understand the rules. However, he enjoys the scenery en route!

✿France✿ said...

le Mont vendoux que je connais et que j'aime et la photo avec cette lavande que du bonheur ce parfum qui fait du bien.

Doctor FTSE said...

My teenage hero Tommy Simpson, died on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 race. I was on holiday in Switzerland at the time, and it seemed all Europe was shocked. I believe there is a small memorial to "Mister Tom" by the roadside where he died. The Tour's first drugs victim? For me, the hey-day of the event was the era of Louis Bobet and Jaques Anquetil. How long since the French produced a winner of this great sporting event? Was that Laurent Fignon in . . . well, a long time ago. Come on, Frenchmen! Get on yer bikes!

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